The King sure does know his horror.
Released in 1999, Eduardo Sanchez and Daniel Myrick’s The Blair Witch Project completely changed the game, not just making a massive profit on an incredibly low budget and not just kick-starting the found footage movement that’s still going strong today, but also revolutionizing movie marketing and, well, just plain terrifying the entire world. The film is nothing short of one of the most influential horror movies ever made, and though these things are of course totally subjective, it simply has to be considered one of the scariest movies of all time.
How scary? It scared the daylights out of Stephen freakin’ King.
Originally published in 1981, King’s nonfiction book Danse Macabre is, as described on the front cover, an essential overview of the horror genre, and the 2010 reissue of the book included a brand new forenote wherein King shared some opinions on the then-current state of horror cinema. Within that introduction was a short essay on The Blair Witch Project, and with Adam Wingard’s sequel Blair Witch now out there in the world, we wanted to share that with you.
Here’s Stephen King on The Blair Witch Project!
One thing about Blair Witch: the damn thing looks real. Another thing about Blair Witch: the damn thing feels real. And because it does, it’s like the worst nightmare you ever had, the one you woke from gasping and crying with relief because you thought you were buried alive and it turned out the cat jumped up on your bed and went to sleep on your chest.
The first time I saw Blair Witch was in a hospital room about twelve days after a careless driver in a minivan smashed the shit out of me on a country road. I was, in a manner of speaking, the perfect viewer: roaring with pain from top to bottom, high on painkillers, and looking at a poorly copied bootleg videotape on a portable TV. (How did I get the bootleg? Never mind how I got it.) Around the time the three would-be filmmakers (Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams, who, coincidentally, happen to be played by Heather Donahue, Joshua Leonard, and Michael Williams) start discovering strange Lovecraftian symbols hanging from the trees, I asked my son, who was watching with me, to turn the damn thing off. It may be the only time in my life when I quit a horror movie in the middle because I was too scared to go on. Some of it was the jerky quality of the footage (shot with a Hi-8 hand-held and 16-millimeter shoulder-mounted camcorders), some of it was the dope, but basically I was just freaked out of my mind. Those didn’t look like Hollywood-location woods; they looked like an actual forest in which actual people could actually get lost.
I thought then that Blair Witch was a work of troubling, accidental horror, and subsequent viewings (where I actually finished the film) haven’t changed my mind. The situation is simplicity itself: The three kids, who start out making a documentary about a clearly bogus witch legend, get lost while making their movie. We know they are never going to get out; we’re told on the title card that opens the movie that, to date, they have never been found. Only the jumpy, disconnected, haunting footage they shot remains.
The idea is complete genius, and a big budget would have wrecked it. Shot on a shoestring (a ragged one), this docu-horror movie gained its punch not in spite of the fact that the “actors” hardly act at all, but because of it. We become increasingly terrified for these people – even the annoying, overcontrolling Heather, who never shuts up and continues to insist everything is totally OK long after her two male companions (and everybody in the audience) knows it’s not. Her final scene – an excruciating close-up where she takes responsibility as one tear lingers on the lashes of her right eye – packs a punch that few Hollywood films, even those made by great directors, can match. The Fearless Girl Director who confidently proclaimed “I know exactly where we’re going” has been replaced by a terrified woman on the brink of madness. And, sitting in a darkened tent after six nights in the woods, with the Hi-8 camcorder held up to her own face, we understand that she knows it.
Blair Witch, it seems to me, is about madness – because what is that, really, except getting lost in the woods that exist even inside the sanest heads? The footage becomes increasingly jerky, the cuts weirder, the conversations increasingly disconnected from reality. As the movie nears the end of its short course (at just eighty minutes and change, it’s like a jury-rigged surface-to-surface missile loaded with dynamite), the video actually disappears for long stretches, just as rationality disappears from the mind of a man or a woman losing his/her grip on the real world. We are left with a mostly dark screen, panting, elliptical lines of dialogue (some we can understand, some we can only guess at), noises from the woods that might or might not be made by human beings, and occasional blurry flashes of image: a tree trunk, a jutting branch, the side of a tent in a close-up so intense that the cloth looks like green skin.
“Hungry, cold, and hunted,” Heather whispers. “I’m scared to close my eyes, and I’m scared to open them.” Watching her descent into irrationality, I felt the same way.
The movie climaxes when Heather and Michael find a decaying house deep in the woods. Shot almost completely in 16mm black-and-white at this point, the movie confronts us with a series of images that are simultaneously prosaic and almost too awful to bear – the wreckage inside seems to glare. Still carrying the camera, Heather bolts up the stairs. At this point, her two friends seem to be calling from everywhere, and the camera’s randomly shifting eye flows past the handprints of the children who have almost certainly been murdered in this house. There’s no dramatic music here or anywhere else; Blair Witch needs no such cinematic steroids. The only sounds are shuffling footsteps, yelling voices (from everywhere!) and Heather’s escalating moans of terror.
Finally, she plunges down to the basement, where one of the hokey stories they were told before their rash entry into the woods turns out to not be bullshit after all. Michael (or is it Josh?) stands in the corner, dumbly waiting for the thing from the woods to do what it will. There is a thud as that unseen thing falls on Heather from behind. The camera drops, showing a blurred nothing. The film ends. And if you’re like me, you watch the credits and try to escape the terrified ten-year-old into whom you have been regressed.